Anarchists in the Gulag (and prison and exile)

Bolshevik repression of anarchists after 1917

Archive for July 2014

Stepan Semenovich Dybets by V. M. Chop and I. I. Liman

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Stepan Semenovich Dybets

Stepan Semenovich Dybets

Stepan Semenovich Dybets (1887 – 1937) was born in the village of Novy Bug, Odessa district, Kherson province. An ethnic Ukrainian, he became the first director of the Nizhny-Novgorod automobile plant (1929-1932), later – GAZ [1]. His oral memories of events in Berdyansk in the first half of 1919 became known to us through their preservation by the well known Soviet writer Aleksandr Bek. The latter, at the beginning of the 1930s, worked on the “Cabinet of Memoirs” started by Maxim Gorky and had many conversations with Dybets, which were stenographed for the book of memoirs People of the Two Five Year Plans [2]. Incidentally, Bek himself also visited Berdyansk, but not until May 1951. As a result of this visit Bek wrote the fictional story Noviy Profil [New Profile], which was published in Moscow in the same year.

The young Stepan Dybets emigrated to America, where he lived for more than ten years. Beyond the ocean he worked as a instrument maker in a motion picture camera factory. In 1911 Dybets became an anarcho-syndicalist and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Later he became one of the organizers of the newspaper Golos Truda, organ of the Russian anarcho-syndicalists in the U.S.A. [3] In 1917 Dybets returned to Russia. At first he worked in anarchist organizations in Kronstadt and Kolpino [4]. After their collapse he moved to Berdyansk, where he worked as a bookkeeper in the Russian-American engineering works [5]. Dybets changed his political orientation, transferring from the Anarchists to the Bolsheviks. Apostasy was not easy for Dybets, and he suffered terribly. It reached the point where he began to exhibit symptoms of mental illness. He completely clammed up and didn’t say anything for almost a month. He himself claimed that all this took place in the fall of 1918, but Lukyan Romanov [6] cruelly wrote that in March 1919 Dybets was still an Anarchist. It is in fact likely that Dybets became a Communist in March 1919, after the Communists took control of the city from the Makhnovists. Working to earn his daily bread, as least as a bookkeeper or routine worker, was clearly not to his liking. Subsequently he made a brilliant career among the Communists and then was pitilessly annihilated once he had exhausted his potential.

Dybets recalled that from the end of March 1919 he himself was the head of the Berdyansk Revkom [Revolutionary Committee]. While still in the USA he had become acquainted with Vsevolod Volin, who had become the leading figure in the Kharkhov-based Confederation of Anarchists of Ukraine (the “Nabat” confederation), which was on the point of moving to Gulai-Polye to carry on its work. This gave Dybets a certain degree of prestige in the eyes of the Makhnovists. Dybets had numerous conversations with Nestor Makhno during the latter’s visits to Berdyansk, which he later recounted to Bek in detail [7].

In the 1920s a group of workers from America, led by Big Bill Haywood and John Rutgers, travelled to the USSR and founded the “American Industrial Colony” in the Kuzbass [8]. Then Dybets was asked by Lenin to provide his services to them as a guide. In 1932-1934 he was already a deputy manager, and from 1935 he was in charge of the Central Board of the Soviet automobile and tractor industry, the “Soviet Ford”. Later he was repressed as a wrecker and an American spy. He was shot on November 26 1937. His widow – Rosa Adamovna [9] – survived her husband for a long time, and during the Khrushchev era she had several meetings with Bek.

In the 1950’s, Bek wanted to write an entire novel about Dybets, collecting a significant quantity of material, but death prevented him from realizing his dream. His related story “Such a job…” appeared in the magazine Novy svit (1967, no. 7). The complete version was published posthumously in the publication Sovietsky pisatel in 1973.

Excerpted from V. M. ChopandI. I. Liman, Free Berdyansk: the life of a city under an anarchist social experiment (1918–1921) . (Zaporozhye, 2007), 478 pp.

Translated from the Ukrainian and edited by Malcolm Archibald

[1] The Gorky Automobile Plant (GAZ) is still the leading manufacturer of commercial vehicles in Russia.

[2] This work was never published as a result of Gorky’s sudden death in 1936.

[3] Golos Truda [The Voice of Labour] was the main newspaper of the Union of Russian Workers in the United States and Canada, an explicitly anarchist organization. Dybets told Bek that the whole staff of Golos Truda joined the IWW, and that he received his red membership card from Big Bill Hayward in person.

[4] Dybets attended a Russian trade union conference in 1917 as an anarcho-syndicalist delegate.

[5] This was a plant established as a worker co-operative by Russian workers who had returned from North America after the Revolution. It was probably run on anarcho-syndicalist principles which would explain Dybets’s presence there.

[6] Lukyan Romanov (? – 1960), a toolmaker by trade, emigrated from the Russian empire to the USA, and then returned in 1917 with the group of workers who organized the Russian-American plant in Berdyansk as a co-operative. Unlike Dybets, Romanov almost immediately joined the Bolshevik Party; after the Civil War he made a career in the Soviet secret police. His memoirs of Berdyansk during the revolutionary period were written for the 40 th anniversary of the October Revolution, when there was a massive effort to preserve the recollections of Old Bolsheviks, i.e. Bolsheviks who had joined the party before October 1917.

[7] Makhno once intervened to save Dybets, who had been condemned to be shot by a revolutionary tribunal. Dybets attributed Makhno’s leniency (Dybets had admitted to killing Makhnovists) to a fear of reprisals.

[8] The Kuznetsk Basin (Kuzbass) in southwestern Siberia is one of the largest coal-mining regions in the world.

[9] The Jewish Anarchist Rosa Adamovna Dybets (1882 – ?) did not convert to Bolshevism like her husband. She met Stepan Dybets only after she emigrated to the USA following imprisonment in Ukraine for anarchist activities. At one time she had been in the same prison as Nestor Makhno in Yekaterinoslav. Shortly after her husband was shot, Rosa was sentenced to eight years in the camps; she survived and was released in 1945.

From: Excerpted from V. M. Chop and I. I. Liman, Free Berdyansk: the life of a city under an anarchist social experiment (1918–1921). (Zaporozhye, 2007), 478 pp. . Translated by: Malcolm Archibald.


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11, July 2014 at 10:10 am

80th Anniversary of the death of Nestor Makhno

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It’s 80 years since the death of Nestor Makhno in Paris.

We’ve posted a couple of pieces – a contemporary tribute from the anarchists of Toronto and John Manifold’s poem Makhno’s philosophers.

Elsewhere, the British Library blog has an interesting – book-focused of course – post by Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies, called “Back in tachanka days” (after the first line of Manifold’s poem: a tachanka was a peasant-cart-with-machine-gun, a favourite Makhnovist weapon).

Worldcat has a number of books by Makhno listed:

Don’t forget, the three volumes of Makhno’s memoirs  – The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, Under the Blows of the Counterrevolution and The Ukrainian Revolution – are available in English thanks to the efforts of Malcolm Archibald and Black Cat Press in Edmonton

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies
Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies

Written by gulaganarchists

6, July 2014 at 5:47 pm

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Makhno’s Philosophers

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Back in tachanka days, when Red and Green
Pursued in turn each other and the White,
Out on the steppe, I’m told, there could be seen
A novel sight

Professors of philosophy, whom war
From some provincial faculty dismissed
To seek new pastures on the Black Sea shore,
Fell in with Makhno – anarchist,

Terrorist, bandit, call him what you will –
Who spared their lives and, either for a laugh
Or from some vague respect for mental skill,
Attached them to his staff.

Their duties were not hard. For months or years,
Lacking a porch in which to hold debate,
These peripatetics, ringed by Cossack spears,
Had leisure to discuss The State.

With flashing pince-nez, while the sabres flashed,
They sat berugged in carts in deep dispute,
Or in some plundered village hashed and thrashed
The nature of The Absolute

Bergsonians quite enjoyed it: from the first
They’d known Duration to depend on Space.
But Nietzscheans found their values arsey-versed
By Supermen of unfamiliar race.

And, whereas Platonists got mulligrubs,
Cynics were cheerful – though I’ll not deny
They grumbled when obliged to share their tubs
With hogs from Epicurus’ sty.

On quiet nights, bandits would form a ring
And listen with amazed guffaws
As syllogisms flew, and pillaging
Was reconciled with Universal Laws.

Symposia were held, whereat the host
(taught by the Hegelians of the Left)
In stolen vodka would pronounce a toast
To Proudhon’s dictum: Property is Theft!

How did this idyll end? Theres some confusion.
Makhno, I fear was caught –
Perhaps he let his native resolution
Get sicklied o’er with other peoples thought.

But what of his philosophers? I feel
Certain they reached an Academe at last
Where each in his own manner might conceal
His briefly bandit past.

To fool the OGPU or the CIA
Would not be hard for any skilled expounder
Of Substance and Illusion, growing grey
But ever metaphysically sounder.

Yet each might feel at times old memories stir,
And know himself, as ever, set apart:
Once, among bandits a philosopher;
Now, among academics, Green at heart.

In fact – I’ve wondered- take Professor X –
Mightn’t his arid manner be a blind?
Are those lack-lustre eyes, behind those specs,
Truly the mirror of his mind?

Or is the real man, far away
From Kantian imperatives, once more
Roaming the steppe, not as a waif and stray
But waging revolutionary war?

Although his tongue belabours
The stony boundaries of a bloodless creed,
His soul is back again among the sabres
Yelling, “The Deed! The Deed!”

John Manifold

Manifold (a long time Australian CP member) has inaccuracies (like Makhno getting caught, for instance), I wonder where he learned this story? What is most interesting is not that, but the way, with a revolutionary situation to enthuse over, he is interested in comparative navel-gazing. Well, it saves him from asking what the red cavalry were up to!

In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 9, 1997


Written by gulaganarchists

6, July 2014 at 4:27 pm

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The Truth about Nestor Makhno

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Nestor Makhno, for years the leader of the rebel peasantry of the Ukraina, died on July 25 in the Tenon Hospital after long months of illness. His remains were cremated in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, at Paris.

Nestor Makhno was one of the outstanding personalities of the Russian Revolution, a man remarkable in many regards. While still in his teens he became interested in the revolutionary movement and at 17 he was already an active member of an anarchist group in the Ukraina. In 1908 the Tsarist Government condemned him to death, but owing to his youth the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was incarcerated in the notorious Butirki Prison, at Moscow, one of the worst hells of the Russian penal system, where the naturally rebellious spirit of Makhno earned him frequent and severe punishment. In spite of it Nestor succeeded in turning his imprisonment to good account; he spent his time in studying and improving the elementary education he had received as a boy. The February Revolution opened the doors of his prison, as it did for thousands of other victims of Tsardom.

Makhno returned to his native Ukraina and there devoted himself to the revolutionary enlightenment of the masses. A splendid organizer and effective agitator, his work speedily showed results. He became particularly popular among the southern peasantry. During the occupation of Ukraina by the German-Austrian forces, Makhno organized very successful guerrilla warfare against the invaders. From a little handful of armed men, who had to procure guns and ammunitions from the enemy, his faithful band constantly grew in numbers and strength, till at one time Makhno’s peasant army consisted of 40,000-60,000 men, including cavalry and artillery. A thorough Anarchist, Makhno waged war against all forces which sought to subject Ukraina to new tyranny and exploitation. For this reason [he fought] the Whites as well as the Bolsheviki when the latter attempted to establish an allegedly “revolutionary” despotism in the South. Makhno clearly distinguished between the interests of the revolution and of the masses as against those of Bolshevik Party rule. He and his povstantsi (rebel peasant) army had for their definite purpose to free Ukraina from the tyranny and government in any form, be it white or red. Makhnovstchina, as the Makhno peasant uprising in Ukraina was called, was a thoroughly libertarian revolutionary movement of the masses in the South of Russia, of utmost significance. Nestor Makhno was the heart and the spirit of that great movement. His great ability as a leader, his personal courage and almost reckless devotion to his anarchist ideal of liberation earned for him the trust, respect and admiration of the Ukrainian masses. His revolutionary integrity and unusual military judgment inspired his army to deeds of almost incredible heroism and self-sacrifice in behalf of the revolutionary cause. His followers christened him “Batko” Makhno (beloved little father), which was the highest expression of popular respect and affection.

But though Makho fought against the establishment of Bolshevik rule in the Ukraina, he never hesitated to come to the aid of the Bolsheviki when the interests of the revolution demanded it. Thus in 1919 the Makhno army practically saved Moscow from being taken by General Denikin when the latter had almost routed the Bolshevik forces. Again in 1920 it was Makhno and his povstantsi who helped in finally defeating Wrangel and his White armies.

The Bolsheviki always appealed to Makhno for aid whenever their own military forces failed to halt the advance of the White enemy. But in spite of being repeatedly saved from destruction by Makhnovtsi, the Bolsheviki continuously planned to annihilate Makhno and his army. True to the psychology of all despotism, the Bolsheviki Government could not tolerate the fact that a large part of Russia – practically the whole of Ukraina – refused to recognise the rule of the Bolsheviki. Fully knowing that Makhno was a true Anarchist who strove to liberate the south from every tyranny, and in spite of the great services done by Makhno’s army to the revolution, the Bolsheviki denounced both Makhno and his peasant followers as bandits and counter-revolutionists. They set a price on Makhno’s head, dead or alive, and even stooped to sending secret emissaries to Makhno’s camp to murder him.

Notwithstanding all the dangers and difficulties of that revolutionary period, and in spite of repeated Bolshevik treachery, Makhno continued for 4 years (1917-1921) loyally to serve the revolutionary cause. He had fought the German invaders and he continued his fight against every reactionary force which sought to subjugate the people of Ukraina, including the armies of Denikin, Skoropadsky, Petlura, Grigorief and others.

Whites as well as the Bolsheviki hated Makhno and his peasant army with a deadly and irreconcilable hatred. Justly so, for was not the very existence of the Makhno movement a challenge and a defiance to all governments and oppression? In the denunciation of Makhno the Bolsheviki went even further than the whites. Secret conspiracies and open military attacks failed to destroy Makhno and his followers, the Bolsheviki decided to kill him morally. It was they who FIRST SPREAD THE LIE that Makhno was a pogromshtchik, a Jew baiter, and that his army was guilty of pogroms against the Jews. But the people of Ukraina knew better than that. They knew that no Bolshevik general ever protected the Jews against pogroms with the energy and zeal of Makhno. They knew that Makhno was an Anarchist and internationalist, and that he was ruthless in suppressing the least sign of racial persecution. Some of his closest friends were Jews, and a number of well-known Russian-Jewish Anarchists were his most trusted advisors and members of the educational department of the Makhno army. It is true that occasional, though very rare cases of assaults on Jews had happened in the territory occupied by Makhno’s forces. But in every case it was proven that such excesses were committed by individual members of the army, and that Makhno was merciless in punishing such offenders. In this connection it is well to remember that the Bolshevik red Army was also not free from such excesses, yet no one would think of accusing the leaders of the Bolshevik army of encouraging pogroms. As to Makhno, he personally and publicly shot Grigorief, the chief of a White band of notorious pogromers, as an object lesson for his entire army and the entire people of Ukraina.

A true anarchist, a great revolutionary mass leader was lost to us by the death of Nestor Makhno. He died, poor, alone and almost deserted far away from the people he so loved and served so faithfully. But his spirit always remained with the masses of Russia, and with his last breath he confidently hoped that some day the oppressed, much-suffering people will rise in their might to sweep away forever the tyranny and despotism of Bolshevism.

Published by the Libertarian groups of Toronto (1934)

In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 23, July 2000



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6, July 2014 at 4:11 pm

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